Secretary of State Deb Markowitz fired back late Thursday against claims that her office has dropped the ball in handling its election responsibilities.
Earlier in the week, Republican Jason Gibbs, who hopes to succeed Markowitz in the role of the state's chief election officer criticized Markowitz for failing to show leadership and taking ownership of problems that arose in the days before early voting began on July 12.
Chief among those problems included town clerks' access to the statewide voter checklist, an internal email system that crashed, and improperly printed ballots delivered to several of the state's largest communities, including Brattleboro, Burlington and Montpelier. He also criticized Markowitz for not adequately notifying the public about the earlier primary date of Aug. 24.
On Thursday, while unveiling a plan to make the governor's office more responsive to local officials' needs, Markowitz called Gibbs' claims "half truths and mischaracterizations."
She responded to Gibbs' claims by point:
Inadequate notification of the early primary date:
"Because of my office’s press release and conversations with our news media, every news organizations has run stories to let voters know that early voting has started and that the primary election date has been changed to August 24th. It is on our website and all election materials. In August the office will be sending a reminder post card directly to every voter on the statewide vote checklist."
Ballot errors prevented early and absentee voting to begin on time.
There were no ballot errors. One printer used paper that could not be read by the optical scan machines. Because we identified the problem immediately we were able to have the problem corrected by printer reprinted at his own cost in enough time to get the new ballots to the clerk’s office within the time period required by law for early voting. The ballots sent to the clerks were correct and could have been used for voting – but would have needed to be hand counted. Early voting started in every town in Vermont as required on July 12th.
The insecurity of the statewide voter checklist was illustrated when it crashed and left Town Clerks and others unable to access important public information.
The statewide checklist is secure and has never crashed. Last week our email server went down for a couple days. This had no effect on the statewide checklist. Clerks had complete access to all information on the checklist at all times.
On two other points, Markowitz said the statewide voter checklist remains secure, despite a critical audit four years ago by then-Auditor Randy Brock, and that she has made improvements as recommended by town clerks, and has included them in the process every step of the way.
Several of those town clerks, including Bridget Collier of Greensboro, pointed out Thursday in a conference call with reporters that Markowitz has been the most responsive secretary of state she's worked with in her 26 years. She's worked with Jim Guest, Donald Hooper Jim Milne and, yes, even a secretary of state by the name of Jim Douglas, our current governor.
"She has involved the people who run elections," said Collier. "In fact, she is the only one who has consulted with any local officials. “I support Deb because she’s the most ethical person I’ve ever met. That’s made for a very ethical secretary of state’s office, and I think we could use that in the governor’s office."
In response to Markowitz's pushback, Gibbs said the incumbent and wannabe governor missed an opportunity to provide adequate leadership and instead pushed off the blame to others for mistakes that were made.
"The challenges she had last week provided me [with] the opportunity to show how I would approach problems differently," Gibbs told Seven Days. "I would handle them much more transparently and directly and I would have acknowledged there were mistakes if we were unable to avoid them, and articulate how we would avoid having them in the future. I would not deflect responsibility from the errors."
At the start of early voting on July 12, several towns did not have the proper ballots in place and ready for voters at the open of business. In all cases, new ballots had been delivered by midday or early afternoon. In some cases, the ballots were printed on the wrong size paper by an out-of-state printer.
The error was caught by Markowitz's office and clerks were told in advance they would get new ballots in time to mail them out on July 12 to overseas and military voters. That still happened, despite the glitch, said Markowitz, but it meant that not everyone could get a ballot first thing in the morning.
Despite Markowitz's claim that clerks were told they could use the improperly printed ballots, Gibbs said he's spoken with several town clerks who claim they were told by the secretary of state's office that they could not use the ballots, as those ballots could potentially identify voters — a no-no.
In media interviews, Markowitz has claimed otherwise, that clerks could have used those improperly printed ballots and simply hand-counted them on election day.
"The secretary of state's office is a small enterprise, about 50 employees, and I think in that environment, if there is a ballot problem, that she would be very clear about expectations and communicate those to her staff," said Gibbs. "Maybe she was too busy running for governor."
As to the last point, there is speculation the GOP is lining up surrogates to peck away at Markowitz, the perceived front runner in the Democratic, five-way race for governor.
Really? Run a coordinated campaign strategy across a party ticket? Well, I never...